In the Search for Excellence

In 2010 I was tasked with establishing a Sales & Marketing Excellence function. Being the only HQ function with sales included in the title could prove to be both a strength and a weakness. Certainly, we were to operate in an environment where sales was a much decentralised matter. However, combined with marketing – an increasingly centralised matter – it became a strength. The almost inevitable slogan-like vision Bringing marketing and sales closer together was an ancient quest for optimising the forces of yin and yang.

It was the word excellence that concerned me the most. Common advice was to become the centre of excellence. But what did that mean, exactly? Wouldn’t one expect brand teams to be centre of excellence for their brands, market access teams centre of excellence for payer engagement, etc.? Was excellence equal to specialist expertise?

Fate took me to Lagos, Nigeria, where we were implementing a new business approach. After a rather chaotic arrival I got a glimpse of excellence in the parking lot. The car licence plates claimed Lagos to be the much sought after centre of excellence.

Nigeria licence plate
Licence Plate. Lagos, Nigeria

While I certainly meet some very gifted and competent people in Lagos I left Nigeria with more questions than answers as to what excellence really is. Although, I did use the above picture in future introductions to the function.

Nigeria not for sale
House not for sale, an innovative business model. Lagos, Nigeria

It was clear that excellence – like innovation – must be something you strive for through certain behaviours (and possibly attitudes).
We are usually able to claim something to be innovative once we see it. How will we be able to measure whether something is excellent? To find the answer I had to trace the word excellence back to its roots in the ancient greek word arete which back in the day meant an outstanding fitness for purpose – the act of living up to one’s full potential. In this sense excellence can be measured by how capable a company or an individual is of fulfilling its purpose. Capabilities – as recommended by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen – can be evaluated along 3 dimensions, namely, resources, processes and priorities.

In summary the role of an excellence function is to optimise the company’s resources and processes, and align priorities towards the fulfilment of the company’s purpose. Whatever that may be.

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